The evolution of bipedal postures in varanoid lizards

Authors

  • GORDON W. SCHUETT,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology and Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Georgia State University, 33 Gilmer Street, S.E., Unit 8, Atlanta, GA 30303-3088, USA
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  • RANDALL S. REISERER,

    1. Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California-Berkeley, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, Berkeley, CA 94720-3160, USA
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  • RYAN L. EARLEY

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alabama, Box 870344, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487, USA
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E-mail: biogws@langate.gsu.edu or gwschuett@yahoo.com

Abstract

The bipedal posture (BP) and gait of humans are unique evolutionary hallmarks, but similar stances and forms of locomotion have had enormous influences on a range of phylogenetically diverse tetrapods, particularly dinosaurs and birds, and a range of mammalian lineages, including non-human apes. The complex movements involved in bipedalism appear to have modest evolutionary origins, and it is presumed that a stable and erect posture is a prerequisite for erect strides and other bipedal movements. Facultative bipedalism in several lineages of lizards is achieved by running, but some varanid lizards (genus Varanus) exhibit BPs without running. In these cases, BPs (BPstanding) are not used as a form of locomotion; rather, BPstanding is associated with defensive displays, and such postures also probably permit better inspection of the environment. Yet, in other varanids, BPs have been observed only during combat episodes (BPcombat), where both contestants rise together and embrace in the so-called clinch phase. Numerous other species, however, show neither type of BP. Past researchers have commented that only large-bodied varanids exhibit BP, a behaviour that appears to show phylogenetic trends. We termed this idea the King–Green–Pianka (KGP) bipedal hypothesis. In this article, we address two main questions derived from the KGP hypothesis. First, what is the phylogenetic distribution of BP in Varanus and close relatives (varanoids)? Second, is BP positively correlated with the phylogenetic distribution of large body size (e.g. snout–vent length, SVL)? In addition, we asked a related question: do the lengths of the femur and tail show body size-independent adaptive trends in association with BP? Because varanid species that show BPstanding also use these postures during combat (BPcombat), both types of BP were analysed collectively and simply termed BP. Using comparative phylogenetic analyses, the reconstruction of BP required three steps, involving a single gain and two losses. Specifically, BP was widespread in the monophyletic Varanus, and the single gain occurred at the most recent common ancestor of the African clade. The two losses of BP occurred in different clades (Indo-Asian B clade and Indo-Australian Odatria clade). BPs are absent in the sister group to Varanus (Lanthanotus borneensis) and the other outgroup species (Heloderma spp.). Our phylogenetic reconstruction supports the KGP prediction that BP is restricted to large-bodied taxa. Using the Hansen model of adaptive evolution on a limited, but highly relevant morphological dataset (i.e. SVL; femur length, FL; tail length, TL), we demonstrated that these characters were not equivalent in their contribution to the evolution of BP in Varanus. SVL was significantly correlated with BP when modelled in a phylogenetic context, but the model identified random processes as dominant over adaptive evolution, suggesting that a body size threshold might be involved in the evolution of BP. A Brownian motion (BM) model outperformed the selection model in our analysis of relative TL, suggesting that TL and BP evolved independently. The selection model for relative FL outperformed the BM model, indicating that FL and BP share an adaptive history. Our non-phylogenetic analyses involving regression residuals of FL and TL vs. SVL showed no significant correlation between these characters and BP. We suggest that BP in Varanus provides a convergent or analogue model from which to investigate various forms of bipedalism in tetrapod vertebrates, especially other reptiles, such as theropod dinosaurs. Because BPstanding in varanids is possibly an incipient stage to some form of upright locomotion, its inclusion as a general model in evolutionary analyses of bipedalism of vertebrates will probably provide novel and important insights. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 97, 652–663.

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